Colorado calling

Summer birding tour of the Centennial State delivered unforgettable sightings

(published 7-26-23)

Chestnut-collared Longspur by Tony Dvorak,
Macaulay Library/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Now and then a trip turns out way better than expected. In June, I took one that did.

I signed up with Colorado Birding Adventures in January. Waiting any longer was risky. Company owner and chief guide Carl Bendorf runs his “Best of Colorado Summer Birding” tour twice a year, always in June, and it sells out. Ten birders per trip, no more.

A month before departure, juicing my anticipation, I changed the screensaver on my phone to a Lewis’s woodpecker, and my laptop wallpaper to a chestnut-collared longspur. Soon, with luck, I’d be seeing these and other birds in Colorado’s grasslands, foothills, mountains, and even some urban environments. Carl’s well-scouted itinerary would take us where the birds are, with emphasis on hard-to-find specialties.

We traveled in two 6-seater vehicles and spent every night at the Fairfield Inn in Longmont, 40 miles north of Denver and 20 miles from Rocky Mountain National Park. When birding all day, it’s nice to stay in the same place. Carl and assistant guide Bill Schmoker live in Longmont, so the logistics worked in their favor, too.

Our first full day of birding took us to Pawnee National Grassland. Target birds here were mountain plover (a declining species with a misleading name), chestnut-collared longspur, thick-billed longspur, and burrowing owl. All were “hiding in plain view” on the wide-open shortgrass prairie, but with Carl’s expertise we found them. Horned lark, lark bunting (Colorado’s state bird) and western meadowlark were everywhere, not hiding at all, and the occasional pronghorn antelope dotted the treeless landscape.

Ptarmigan country: Rocky Mountain National Park
Mountain plover was an exceptional find. The species had eluded Carl’s previous tour, two weeks before ours. As with many grassland birds, plover numbers are declining sharply. The same is true for chestnut-collared longspur and some other birds we’d see in the days ahead, such as pinyon jay and brown-capped rosy finch. Even on a joyful birding romp like ours, the dark cloud of falling bird populations is always there.

We entered Rocky Mountain National Park the next morning full of anticipation. Our goal: white-tailed ptarmigan, a ground-hugging resident of alpine tundra. The park’s Trail Ridge Road led us to Medicine Bow Curve, elevation 11,600 feet.

White-tailed Ptarmigan by Carl Bendorf
From the trailhead, Carl led our bundled up, well-layered party onto the barren, rock-strewn expanse. A ptarmigan is virtually impossible to see unless it moves, and this small chicken-like species is not big on exercise. It blends perfectly with its surroundings.

After a tense 30-minute search, two ptarmigans surrendered their cover, charming us all with close-up looks. The birds initially flew a short distance, aiding our search immensely. We slapped high fives while Carl and Bill breathed sighs of relief. When people depend on you for once-in-a-lifetime birds, guides naturally feel some pressure.

The roll continued 20 minutes later outside the Alpine Visitor Center just up the road. While most of us were using the restrooms or buying souvenirs, Carl and Bill spotted six brown-capped rosy-finches on a patch of snow, about 40 feet below the observation deck.

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch by Carl Bendorf
Seizing the moment, the guides leaped into round-up mode, summoning the birders. We were scattered all over the place, mingling with an overflow crowd of summer tourists. Bill literally called out inside the packed gift shop. To paraphrase, “Birders, drop the merch! Come outside NOW!”

The real gifts could fly away at any moment.

The drill was effective, the group reassembled, and there they were, the rosy-finches, like they’d fluttered down from a heavenly aviary just for us. What a bonus: close views of another cryptic resident of the summer tundra, a species we didn’t really expect to see.

With ptarmigan and rosy-finch in the bag by 10 a.m., we were tempted to exit the park immediately and purchase lottery tickets at the nearest Loaf ‘N Jug.

Moose by Carl Bendorf
Thankfully we stayed because our lucky streak wasn’t over. More interesting birds were ahead but so were some remarkable mammal sightings—a giant American elk walking down the road, dropping the jaws of spectating tourists; a bull moose dining in a pond, submerged up to his neck; and a stealthy Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep high on a hill. By far the rarest sighting was a cinnamon bear, a color-morph of American black bear. Some of us caught a brief glimpse of it just outside the park entrance.

We would return to RMNP on our last day, but first came the Southern Swing, a 400-mile loop beyond Colorado Springs and back home along a raging Arkansas River, and through towns like Canon City, Salida and Buena Vista. It was a long but rewarding day, filled with memorable birds.

In a brushy field of cholla near Pueblo we watched the courtship behavior of the Cassin’s sparrow, a lifer for most of us, and a bird not even on my radar when the trip began.

Our van and SUV creeped around a neighborhood in Salida before finally locating some noisy pinyon jays. Carl knew their address. Mountain and western bluebirds lived on the block, too. A few human residents gave us curious looks.

Lewis's Woodpecker by Carl Bendorf
Lewis’s woodpecker, my phone bird, came next. Again, we were surrounded by houses, this time in Buena Vista. Carl had staked out a nest hole where an adult bird was coming and going, delivering food and taking out the white trash (fecal sacs).

The woodpecker is named after Meriweather Lewis, who collected the type specimen during the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-06). I’d wanted to see one quite badly ever since missing my chance in 2019, when for several days a vagrant Lewis’s visited a nature center feeder in downstate Effingham County—the first Illinois record of the species.

Lifers are great, but the Colorado tour produced many birds that I’d only encountered once or twice before. These were special, too:  band-tailed pigeon; broad-tailed hummingbird; golden eagle (two youngsters on a massive cliffside nest); Williamson’s sapsucker; Cordilleran flycatcher; Clark’s nutcracker (yes, that Clark); pygmy nuthatch; American dipper; pine grosbeak; green-tailed towhee; MacGillivray’s warbler; Lazuli bunting; and western tanager.

From left: Bill Schmoker, Jeff Reiter and Carl Bendorf

We tallied 129 species over the five days. A few hoped-for birds eluded us, like scaled quail, ferruginous hawk, and American three-toed woodpecker. But I heard no complaints—not at the end, not all week. Our birding cups were full, our moods Rocky Mountain high.

Returning to the hotel on the last night, Carl said, “It’s good to leave a few birds on the table. If this was easy it wouldn’t be fun.”

He’s right, of course. Best to save a few birds for next time.  

Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.